Friday, February 17, 2017

Sudbury, Suffolk

Corn Exchange, book exchange

This is one of those jaw-dropping buildings that constantly stop me in my tracks as I walk around English towns. A corn exchange was a major centre for a country town and an important adjunct to a market. Corn exchanges are often imposing buildings, symbols both of civic pride and rural productivity. They have carvings of reapers or goddess like Flora on them, big doorways so that you can get in and out with ease and sacks, and are designed to be both landmarks and useful.

This one was built in the 1840s and makes its mark with a giant order, a tall door and windows, and the requisite corn-related decoration: sheaves of corn at the top of each column and a group of resting harvesters in the centre of the parapet. No doubt for quite a bit of the last century it was still a much-used building and a local hub – read Adrian Bell’s classic book Corduroy (and the sequels Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree*) for accounts of English farming in the interwar period, in Suffolk especially, to get the idea of how important this business was. But by the 1960s, this building was ‘just’ a landmark, and no longer used for its original purpose. It was saved from demolition thanks to a local campaign and is now the town’s library.† A nice example of creative reuse.

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* These gentle, reflective books about country life have been reprinted and can also be found in wonderful early Penguin editions. Maybe Bell made country life a bit gentler and more idyllic than it really was (though it’s not always easy for the young farmer whose life they chronicle) but there is much to like in them, I find, and much to learn. If I’m perhaps a little indulgent towards the generally rosy picture of country life they paint, maybe it’s because they describe life on the land in a period when my own father was a farm worker, somewhat to the north of Bell’s territory, on the Lincolnshire Wolds.

† Now libraries themselves are under threat. But I hope Sudbury can sustain one, and sustain this outstanding building.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Lavenham, Suffolk

Shop talk

I regularly give a talk about the history of shops and shopfronts and I’ve taken to using this image to explain what late-Medieval shops could look like and how they sometimes functioned. In the 15th century, glass was still an expensive commodity, restricted mainly to churches and high-status houses, so there were no shop windows like those of today. So, if you had a shop, you had unglazed openings, closed by shutters. This example has pairs of shutters, upper and lower, and in the ‘closed’ position the lower shutter would hinge upwards and the upper one downwards, to seal the opening. During business hours you could open the shutters as shown, or the lower one could be propped with a trestle and act as a counter or stall. The shopkeeper could put goods on it and stand inside.

In this period, of course, a lot of business was not done in shops at all, but on market stalls. But a few trades – those who needed work space, for example, from carpenters to butchers, had workshops and could sell from there. This sort of shutter arrangement worked for them, allowing them to maske things and sell things in the same space, and live above the shop.  It’s very unusual to find this kind of shop front today. This one, part of the Guildhall at Lavenham, is notable survivor and a useful visual aid when I'm giving my talk.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Clare, Suffolk

A sign of old times

It is, as they used to say, February fill-dyke. Here in Gloucestershire dark days predominate, deadlines loom, and there seems little chance of going very far in search of interesting architecture – or at any rate mot much chance of seeing anything very clearly or photographing it if one does venture out. So I am looking back over pictures of some of my recent haunts, to find something of interest to share on the blog. To start with, a bird that’s at home in the wet…

This beautiful sign adorns the Swan in Clare, Suffolk. It’s carved on a piece of oak about 10 feet long, and is full of interesting detail. The bird itself is a beautiful combination of curves (the breast, wings, and neck) and feathery traces still visible beneath a few coats of paint. On the left are the arms of Mortimer and de Burgh quartered; on the right is a shield with the royal arms of France and England. The sign also includes the crescent and star, both royal badges, and the swan itself has a collar in the form of a crown. This is a royal swan, then, and the theory is that the carving came originally from Clare Castle, which was held by Elizabeth de Clare (who was married to a de Burgh) and then by the Mortimer family. In the castle the sign must have formed the base of an oriel window, probably at the time when Henry Prince of Wales was guardian of the young nobleman Edmund Mortimer (1391–1425), so dates to some time in the early-15th century.*

Many are the Swan Inns of England† and they often have fine signs, but there are few to beat this one.

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* Edmund was in custody during the latter part of the reign of Henry IV because of his rival claim to the throne and his family's part in efforts to depose Henry. When Henry died and his son Henry V became king in 1413, Mortimer was freed, made a Knight of the Bath, and became a loyal counsellor of the young king. Edmund founded a college of canons at Stoke-by-Clare in 1414.

† I have previously admired the Swan at Wells and the Three Swans at Market Harborough.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tottenham Court Road, London

A short afterword

Yesterday I did a post about the tiled decoration by Eduardo Paolozzi at Tottenham Court Road underground station in London. At the end of the post is a link to a YouTube video about the alterations to the decoration and the restoration of the tiles that remain. Unfortunately, those of you who subscribe to my posts by email may be unable to see or access the link.

So, if you are receiving this by email, the original post and link are here.

And, for those who cannot access the video, it is on YouTube here.

Or, on the blog's home page you can just scroll down to find the original post.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Tottenham Court Road, London

Murals on the move

One would have to be unobservant (or very lucky) to have spent any time in Central London over the last few years and not come across the Crossrail development. This enormous underground engineering project has disrupted the capital in all sorts of ways, and one of the centres of this disruption is the complete rebuilding and massive expansion of Tottenham Court Road underground station.

One thing that I’ve been aware of for some time is that the unique and very special tiled decoration by Eduardo Paolozzi is being altered in the process. These murals are perhaps the greatest work of public art by this pioneer of Pop Art, a riot of colour* in the sometimes dull world of the underground, and, at about 23 years old, part of our history already. Some parts of the station with Paolozzi tiles are being demolished or rebuilt, so some sections of the mural have been removed to Edinburgh, where the National Galleries already have a large Paolozzi collection and where Paolozzi was a student and, later in life, a teacher. The rest of the tiles are being cleaned, restored, and in some cases moved from one part of the station to another.

This has been done with great care, and the video to which I link below, produced by Transport for London, shows something of the enormous effort in planning, engineering, and work involved. True, part of the intention of the video is PR for TfL. But it shows that the professionals who have worked on the project are just that, professionals, and their devotion to the project, their commitment to the murals, and the pains they have taken shine through. What’s more, the video gives a better impression of this enormous work of art than I can in one or two photographs. The artist’s feel for colour, his sense of musical and visual rhythm and syncopation, his inspiration from all kinds of places and things from jazz to sweetshops, is vividly caught. This station is going to be impressive and the Paolozzi murals will play their part. And that will be some recompense for the inconvenience that, as they say, this work may have caused.

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*And a feast of monochrome pattern on the Northern Line platforms.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Burford, Oxfordshire

Old school ties

In 1571 a group of merchants in the Cotswold town of Burford founded a grammar school. Their leader was the appropriately named Simon Wysdom, whose name features in an inscription over the doorway of the old school building, which still exists, a solid-looking structure of Cotswold stone in the centre of the town. The masonry is quite high quality – coursed squared rubble blocks, one step away from the super-smooth ashlar of the very highest status buildings.

However, the structure is perhaps not as quite solid as it seems. At some stage there has been some instability and tie rods have been installed to stop the walls bulging outwards. These ties are metal rods that pass all the way through a building from one exterior wall to the other, fixed on the outside with bars or discs that hold the wall in like a corset. Often the rods are heated up immediately before they are inserted and the outer bars or discs fixed on, so that they contract as they cool down, ensuring the tightest fit.

The bars on the outside can take various forms. One of the most common is a large X-shape, so that the containing effect is spread across a large surface of wall. Here, there’s an added touch: instead of Xs, the rods end in the three initials B, G, and S, for Burford Grammar School. As well as holding in the wall they act as a bit of advertisement. Structural, educational, promotional, and ingenious in one.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Wesley’s room

In response to my previous post about the chapel in Devizes, a reader asked me what were the essential requirements of a nonconformist chapel as opposed to, say, an Anglican place of worship? It’s a good question, and made me reflect that in more than nine years of blogging about English buildings I’d not once posted a photograph of a chapel interior. So here’s the interior of John Wesley’s New Room in Bristol, built by Wesley in 1739 and therefore the oldest Methodist chapel in the world. It has been altered and enlarged since then, but retains its essential features.*

The photograph shows some of the key things about this kind of interior. It’s very plain – there are no statues or painted images, because the emphasis is on the Word, as represented by reading the Bible and preaching sermons. So there’s a large and prominent pulpit – here a double-decker design with a built-in reading desk, typical of the 18th century – and this piece of furniture is the focal point of the space. There’s correspondingly less emphasis on the sacraments, so this building does not have a chancel with an altar, or on elaborate ritual, so this not a processional space. The pews are packed in, with balconies as well as seating on the ground floor, so that as many people as possible can attend and hear the preacher. The space is well lit, here by a glazed dome, so that people can read their Bibles and hymn books. And the rectangular space, not too far from the “shoe-box” proportions of the ideal concert hall, probably makes for good, clear acoustics.

The New Room is a particularly fine interior – it was built by the founder of Methodism after all – but the general pattern is typical of Methodist chapels generally, and of the chapels of other nonconformist groups, although they may also have special requirements such as the large fonts for total immersion used by the Baptist church. With simplicity at the heart of the design, nonconformist buildings can be somewhat spartan, but they can also be magnificent in their proportions and are usually highly functional. They deserve the notice of believers and non-believers alike.†

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* There’s more about the history of the New Room here.

† I hope people will take more notice of them when Christopher Wakeling’s long-awaited book Chapels of England is published later this year.